Thursday, 14 June 2012

Alpha and Omega

Supper this evening consisted of the very last home-grown bacon joint alongside the first of this year's new potatoes, broad beans and parsley.

The old with the new.
A fitting transition.
There is always new, isn't there? New life. New growth. New experiences.
All good.

And there are no photos because it has all gone!

Tuesday, 5 June 2012


To be said in one's best Tim Curry voice!

The hungry gap is always a frustrating time. The only edible things available to eat from the garden are a few herbs, a mass of rhubarb and some tatty spinach left over from last year. Sure there are plenty of greens available in the wild - sorrel, jack-by-the-hedge, wild garlic and nettles - but is not quite the same as that first harvest of the year.

Everything is so tantalisingly close to being ready.
It is time to cover the strawberries. As soon as the first hint of pinkness appears, the blackbirds start paying them rather too much interest for my liking. This year I WILL eat them myself, rather than donating them to the wildlife.
The first sowing of peas was eaten by something (probably mice or voles) before they had a chance to get going. The plants look delicate, but are as hard as nails if I can get them through the first couple of weeks with their heads out of the soil, so the second sowing was made in a length of guttering in the greenhouse and then planted out. And there are third and fourth sowings almost ready to follow in their footsteps.
I don't think it is possible to have too many fresh peas.
Broad beans of course. Dwarf varieties only this year as the yield is pretty good and the plants don't need staking, which is always a bonus up on this hill.

I have really been enjoying my garden this year. With two of us tackling it, the place is starting to get straight again. Robert likes the bits that involve petrol-driven machinery, so the hedges look tidy, the woodpile is full and the lawn gets mown more than once in a blue moon. Which leaves me with time to plant and weed and pot on - and to take pleasure in them, rather than simply rushing to get everything in.
Not having chickens scratching everything up helps too. I miss the chooks - and the eggs and manure - but not the frustration of finding a couple of hens dust-bathing in my newly-planted seedlings. I'm sure there will be chickens in my life again, but they probably won't have quite such free rein as was the case in the past.
The lettuces are almost ready too. It's a shame that the sun has disappeared temporarily, but I'm sure it will come back eventually.

The Spring planting frenzy happens every year. I always worry about being too late, so I put in the poor tender seedlings too early, then a late-May cold snap turns up with the result that they sit in the ground and sulk until mid-June.
I know this will happen because it is always the same. My old-boy neighbours tut despairingly over my hastiness, and offer me their leftover plants just in case mine turn up their toes with the cold. And the late-planted seedlings always catch up with the early ones, and often do even better. But I just can't stop myself doing it - the first sunny day in May, I am out there putting in those little plantlets and hoping that I will have got it right for once.
But it never happens, and the first couple of weeks of June are always spent pacing up and down, waiting to harvest something.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

A rare success

I love my garden.
Vegetables, flowers, trees, grass (well maybe I grumble about the grass sometimes). There is very little that gives me more pleasure than pottering about outside, pruning, dead-heading, digging and planning. It is all good.

Houseplants are an entirely different matter.
My intentions towards them are always honourable, but I cringe inwardly when someone gives me a potplant as the odds are that it will be a brown and crispy husk within six months. Having most of my windowsills point due South doesn't help either as the poor plants have the choice between thermal shock cycles there, or sitting further into the room in semi-darkness.
I could give the roll call of houseplants that have gone before, but it would be too depressing for words. Suffice to say, it is long.

So last year, when a visiting friend gave me a beautiful Phalaenopsis, I admired its beauty and simply expected it to go and join its predecessors on the compost heap eventually. But the blooms continued to flower month after month, and the plant appeared to enjoy my benign neglect. When the flowering stem finally died back, I felt that something so pretty and so tenacious deserved a chance.

After taking advice, I moved the pot to overwinter in the spare bedroom where it more or less dried out, but was given a watering whenever I noticed it - which admittedly was not very often. Amazingly it started to put up another flowering stalk a couple of months ago, so I moved it to where I would see it more often, gave it a bit of a feed and waited.

Last week it rewarded me with this. So lovely, and quite undeserved.

Monday, 28 May 2012

It seemed like a good idea at the time

This is something I seem to find myself saying quite a lot.

When we decided to hold our wedding reception in the garden at home, I inevitably found myself looking around the place with a critical eye. There are so many things that I have left undone over the past four years, due to lack of either time or oomph.

Take the pond, for example.
It was quite a nice pond when R and I first moved here. Goldfish, waterlilies, flag irises and marsh marigolds, boggy area, home to dragonflies, pond skaters and water boatmen, frogs and newts. Unfortunately it was in entirely the wrong place - in full sunlight and under a couple of deciduous trees that shed their leaves directly into the pond every Autumn.

Well, the goldfish survived on neglect for quite a few years.
And then I got ducks...
Ducks are lovely. Brilliant entertainment. Lots of eggs and the surplus drakes are rather tasty. They loved the pond and promptly stripped it of all greenery, ate the goldfish and as many tadpoles as they could get their greedy little beaks around. And they pooed. Into the pond that was already silted up with the sad remains of all the green stuff they had eaten. Without any oxygenating plants, the water promptly turned green and changed to the consistency of pea and ham soup.

In one of my Bridezilla moments, when I realised that the guests would have to walk past the pond and survey its awful green sludginess, I decreed that it would have to be drained, dredged and refilled. Husband-to-be quite sensibly didn't argue with this, but took the submersible pump from its shelf in the barn, removed a large tubful of frogspawn and pumped out all the water.

Then he handed me a bucket...

It took me two days to remove the 6-inch layer of noxious primaeval gloop and barrow it to the compost heap (mustn't waste all that organic matter!). I also removed many of the large edging stones that had fallen in, half a dozen planting baskets which, pre-ducks, had held waterlily roots and a mysterious collection of green-painted funnels (no idea what those were all about).

We then refilled the pond, returned the frogspawn and waited for the stirred-up stuff in the water to settle and change from dark brown to the clear, limpid pool that I fondly held in my imagination.

Only it didn't.
A week later the water had changed colour.
Back to bright green. Roughly the colour of pea and ham soup.

I wasn't happy. Not happy at all.

There was only one thing for it.
We would have to get some more ducks!

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Perfect day

It's a funny thing, getting married after being widowed.
However happy you are, there is always a little voice in your head telling you that things shouldn't be so good. You always need to be careful about hurting someone else's feelings. It doesn't matter that you have thought about your loss for every one of the previous 1370 days or 32,856 hours or roughly 1,971,360 minutes, it still seems wrong to be happy at having good news to pass on to someone who may feel sad as a result.

In the end, R's family decided that they couldn't come to our wedding. I understand their feelings, but I so wish that it had been different. They gave their blessing, but didn't feel they could give their presence. I missed them very much. There were quite a few other people whom I thought about inviting, but they had been primarily 'his' friends, so it just didn't seem right. This may have just been my problem - I appreciate this.

But all those caveats aside, it truly was one of the happiest days of my life.
It was cold, but the sun shone on us. We planned a relaxed, informal event full of fun and music, and that is exactly what we had. A smallish private ceremony was followed by a ceilidh in a tent in the garden at home, with additional music from our favourite local bluegrass duo and other friends.

It was wonderful, joyful and full of people who care about us and wish us well for the future. And I guess that is all that matters.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

The silence of the lambs

Yesterday I sold my little flock of sheep.
There are still three of the ram lambs here in the village, on a friend's land, but the rest of them have all gone. Including the ewe with her baby that was just born a few days ago.

They had to go. For the last couple of years I hadn't managed them very well. There were too many sheep on my small field, and the grass wasn't being rested. I missed the opportunity to send last year's lambs off to the abattoir before Christmas, which meant that they hung around all winter, eating me out of house and home. My hay bill this year was phenomenal.

So when lambing time came around this year I didn't have enough grass. And when Robert and I decided to have our wedding reception here, it didn't really sink in until the last minute that I would have to take the sheep off what grass there was so that it could clean up for the marquee. Apparently the hirers of such equipment don't take terribly kindly to erecting their pristine white tents in a field full of sheep poo!

As a result, the last month or so has been very stressful, calling in favours from friends to help me move the sheep and asking for access to any bit of grazing in the area going spare. And then I lost a lamb for the first time ever. It probably wouldn't have made it whatever we did, but seeing the little soul just fading away before my eyes after initially seeming to rally was just heartbreaking.

I had come to terms with the fact that I wouldn't be able to keep the sheep when we move into town, but after a week or more of sleepless nights, trying to work out what to do with them, I finally came to the conclusion that they would have to be sold. Sooner rather than later, but I wasn't keen on sending them to market as the whole flock would probably simply be bought for slaughter which somehow seems wrong for lambs that are so young. I know that most of mine have ended up in the freezer, but at least they normally had the best part of a year in which to run around with the sun on their backs. Not an entirely consistent moral position, I know, but it's not all about logic, is it?

A few days ago, a chance conversation with the man doing some groundworks at a friend's house found me a buyer, and the deal was done quickly. For once in their awkward little lives, the sheep all loaded quickly and easily into his trailer, some cash changed hands and that was it. Off they went to look cute and cut the grass and clear some woodland around his caravan site. They will enjoy that, I'm sure.

It is a relief that they have gone, but it is quiet here now. Very quiet. There are no more farm animals on my little patch of land. I'm looking forward to not having to get up and feed them, or worry about worm burdens or shearing.
But it is very quiet.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Life still has a few surprises

I have been struggling to rediscover my blogging mojo for a while.
Lack of time and lack of inspiration, or simply the moments passing faster than I have time to write about them, have stood in the way.

And then there has been my stalker, Mr G. Reaper, who has remained ever-present since the start of the year.
I had intended to keep this place a dead person-free zone, but it hasn't been easy.
Hardest to deal with, of course, is the fact that it would have been R's 50th birthday this year. A double milestone - another birthday ticked off, and a Significant Date as well. It has helped having a broad shoulder to cry on this time, but the pain and searing loss doesn't go away, does it?

Then a good friend and work colleague passed away a couple of weeks ago, six months after her retirement. She gave up work so she and her husband could spend more time travelling, and was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer just two months later. The disease progressed so quickly that we never did get the chance to have the retirement meal we were planning.
Anne's funeral is on Wednesday.

Our little village hasn't been immune either. In the last two months, we have lost my lovely next-door neighbour, Mary, and another friend's husband, Mike. Two people from a village of around 200 souls in such a short time is felt deeply. One percent of the population. It creates a feeling of unease in addition to the sadness.

And yet, all around the land is waking up. Coming back to life.
Gardens are filling with flowers, buds are starting to break on the trees. We even had to mow the lawn last weekend.

Every field seems to be full of lambs. Including my own.
I decided to have one last lambing, a swan song, as it were. I may not be living here for that much longer, but while I am, it will be full of little faces.
The first ewe produced two beautiful little lambs last weekend. Then yesterday, I went out for a couple of hours. When I came back, I could see that Robert was waiting to tell me something. "Come outside and take a look at this." he said excitedly.

I certainly wasn't expecting this:

Genetics was never one of my strong subjects at school, but I would love to know how that happened!
Mother was pure black, as were her grandmother and great-grandmother. Dad is a pure-bred (or so I thought!) Black Welsh Mountain ram. I guess every family has the odd skeleton in the closet if you go back far enough!

And twin brother is black too.
Makes for a lovely picture though.

Monday, 27 February 2012

The hidden cost of cheap flights

It has been a horrible winter up here on my hilltop.
Not cold, crisp and snowy like the previous two winters. I don't mind those at all. Given sufficient stocks of firewood and red wine, a full freezer and no particular place to go, I can simply wait them out.
This one was a real Welsh winter though. All leaden skies, fog and constant rain from the West. For days on end. The sort of winter for which the term SAD was invented.

By the start of February we were both desperate for some sunlight. Added heat would be a bonus, but just light would do.
A quick scan of t'Interweb for cheap flights led to 10 days in Portugal, the Algarve to be specific. Never having been there before, I had imagined it was all golf courses and expat Brit retirement villages. Well yes, those are there, but there are also orange groves, cork oak forests, neat terraced smallholdings clinging onto hillsides, a wealth of birdlife, azure seas and dramatic offshore rock formations, glorious seafood and char-grilled dishes, and a whole wealth of other camera-friendly sights and experiences.

Sadly, though, the most memorable thing we brought back with us was a really nasty bout of 'flu. Caught, I am absolutely certain, from the Ryanair pilot sitting next to Robert who coughed and spluttered for the entire flight back.
Which is the really strange thing. You certainly don't get anything else for free on a budget, no-frills airline!

Saturday, 7 January 2012


Plygain, pronounced plug-ine (as in wine), is a Welsh tradition and something very, very special.

Imagine a minuscule chapel nestled on a hillside in the middle of nowhere or at the centre of a tiny village. Imagine it packed to the gunwales, with standing room only. The vicar welcomes everyone to the evening (in Welsh), announces Y Cylch Cyntaf (the first round). and then sits down. The room is full of silent anticipation, punctuated only by a little coughing and shuffling of paper.

Then a man gets up, walks to the front and starts to sing - unaccompanied - an old Welsh carol. When he finishes, he returns to his seat and all is silent again. After a few moments a family group walks to the front and sings in four-part harmony. They are followed by a father and his two sons. And so the singing progresses.

Eventually all those who wish to sing have taken their turn, filling the space with their voices. Nothing has been planned in advance, there is no set running order. They just take their place at the front as the muse seizes them. Then the vicar declares the start of Yr Ail Cylch (the second round), and the man who started off the singing returns to the front. And so on to the end, each in the order of their first appearance.

Tradition demands that no carol should be repeated, so each parti (or group of singers) will rehearse three or four. As there is no planning of either content or running order, if an earlier singer performs the carol that another participant or group intended to sing, there will be a rapid turning of pages to find another suitable song. Everything is unaccompanied, the quality is variable - many of the singers are getting on in years and their voices are not as strong and true as they once were - but the effect of the whole is utterly spellbinding. The singing rises to the rafters of the tiny church and continues for as long as there are people to sing.

This is no traditional church service. It is more like competitive carol singing, but without prizes or applause. The word plygain apparently derives from the Latin for cock crow - originally the services were held on Christmas morning, with people leaving home in the dark. They would then sing to welcome the dawn and the coming of the Christ child. Now plygains are held over a period of weeks through Advent and up to Twelfth Night. The one we went to last night was the last for this season. I have never been to one before - mainly because they are never advertised. Those who normally go know when they are, the order of the churches being repeated year after year. But having been to one, I fully intend to go to as many as possible next year. There is absolutely nothing like it.

The evening ends with the carol y swper, in which those who have taken part (the men only) literally sing for their supper. A beautiful end to an enthralling evening.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012


This goal is much harder than the first one.
There are so many memories bound up in this house. Many of my good friends are here. I love my ever-so-slightly eccentric lifestyle up here on this hilltop. I enjoy the freedom that living in the back of beyond brings, and having the space to grow a huge garden and keep animals has been wonderful.

But there are a lot of negatives.
The house is too big. It always was, but R and I had plans to use one half as a holiday let. That isn't going to happen now. There is also still so much to do with respect to the renovations, and I don't think that I could ever recoup the money it would cost, not if I did it to the standard that I would like.
And with land and animals come responsibilities. It is difficult to go away, even for 24 hours, without making copious arrangements. Land and property needs to be maintained - yesterday two of the corrugated roofing sheets blew off my barn in the storm, soaking a lot of the hay I have stored for the sheep. This really isn't a Good Thing, and I'm not sure I have the energy to do it for much longer.

Robert has done the smallholding "thing" for many years too, and has happily moved on from it. He is currently renovating an old house about 20 miles from here and we intend to move there when it is finished. The house is in a small market town on the Welsh/English border. It is sweet, lovely and oh so tiny. We are going to have to distill the contents of two largish houses into one little bijou property.

Strangely enough, it is not this aspect that worries me. Stuff is, at the end of the day, just stuff, and I think it will be an interesting project to decide exactly what is important to me and what is not.
I will miss the outdoor space though. The garden is minuscule at the new place, little more than a courtyard. There is an outside possibility of buying a small, adjoining plot of land which would make a very nice veg garden. I am keeping my fingers and everything else crossed about that.

But on the positive side, we will have the time and freedom - and the money - to travel. It is something I have missed over the last 10 years here. There are friends all over the world we have never visited and would love to go and see. That just wouldn't happen if we were keeping livestock seriously.
It will also be nice to live somewhere at a lower altitude where it doesn't rain constantly. Or snow at the drop of a hat. Or have so much wind that it takes your breath away. The tiny garden at the new house is also a little suntrap. I'm sure I remember quite liking sun...

I know it is the right thing to do for us, but equally it is going to be a huge wrench to leave here. I just wish it would be possible to keep this place so that I could visit it whenever I wanted, but that is just stupid. It would deteriorate further if I did, and that wouldn't make me happy either.

Anyway I have at least 6 months of decluttering and divesting to do before I even have to worry about it!

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

In the arms of Morpheus

Sleep is a wonderful thing.
The coughing stopped long enough to allow 6 hours of uninterrupted sweet oblivion.
I would like to order the same again tonight, please.

Monday, 2 January 2012

A clean slate

It must be said, there aren't many benefits to catching a festive Christmas cold that leaves one coughing almost 24/7 for a week or more. But the resulting insomnia does carve out rather a lot of free thinking time

So, after devising menus and shopping lists for the next few weeks, mentally rearranging all the furniture and planning the 2012 veg garden rotation, thoughts eventually turned to New Year's resolutions. I have never had much truck with the "I will keep my desk tidy this year" type as they seem to court failure, and I can find plenty of other things to beat myself up about. But goals are different. Something to work towards, rather than necessitating large-scale behaviour modification. There are lots of things that could go on the list, but I managed to distil it down to three (in order):

1. Get married
2. Move house
3. Run a half marathon

That's probably enough to be going on with for one year!

Hang on a minute. Did she say “Get married”?
In the words of my No. 2 niece when she heard the news, “She can’t do that, I haven’t met him yet!”

I guess a little of the back story is needed here.
Way back last year, when my friend Cheryl put me up for sale on EBay (well, actually she plied me with wine and filled in a profile for a dating site, but a bit of poetic license is permitted), I little imagined that this is where I would be right now. In fact I found the whole idea very scary. But my guardian angel must have been looking after me; after weeding out a number of wholly unsuitable respondents, a couple of meetings with very pleasant, but not at all right gentlemen, I met Robert.

We had a couple of false starts, largely due to my inability to arrive anywhere at the right time, but finally met up – in the carpark to my local animal feed store, which I like to think was a good omen! After that it seemed to take no time at all before we were almost totally in synch with one another. We are very different people, but find we see eye to eye on most issues, particularly the important ones.

And then, a couple of weeks before Christmas, he proposed. I am sure there probably are good reasons why we should wait, but I sure as heck can’t think of any. If there is one thing that the last few years have taught me it is that life really is too short. I talked it through with R’s family. It wasn’t the easiest conversation I have ever had, but they all freely gave their blessing, which was very important to me.

So, I find myself at the start of a new year with a wedding to plan.
Life certainly has become interesting.

(And I’m happy to report that no. 2 niece has now met him, and does approve!)